Saturday, June 30, 2007

Unschooling music practice

While madly deleting items from my "sent items" folder, I came across this message I wrote a year and a half ago. It was food for thought for me all over again, so I figured it was worth archiving here on my blog:

"It is interesting--because it seems that unschooling would mean that if a child loses interest then they ought to be able to 'drop it.' At least that is my understanding. Or, alternatively, you would have to make it so interesting that they wouldn't want to drop it. But, that seems like it would be devastating to the study of an instrument or foreign language that requires every day practice and cumulative skills?"

I think that it is selling kids short to say that if their interest wanes they will want to drop it. From a very young age my kids have been able to understand and express that while they don't particularly want to practice today or this week or this month, they like the violin (/piano/viola) and don't want to give it up. My job as an unschooling parent has been to help them find ways to weather the day-to-day in service of their longer-term wishes.

In fact I think that this is one of biggest jobs of parents in general ... to help children recognize the value of longer-term, more abstract ideals, values and goals, rather than focusing on immediate gratification, and to give them the tools and knowledge that help them stretch towards these things.

Our conversations about how to get back on track with practising usually start with me asking whether they feel they want to quit the violin (/viola/piano). Because I present this as an option, the kids have never used a purported desire to quit as a weapon against me. I think they do have a sense that to quit would let me down, let themselves and their teacher down and let down their social community of Suzuki children (who are extremely important to them). But they don't believe that they study their instruments because I wouldn't let them quit.

Because we never have our discussions about practising problems on a day where problems have occured and emotions are running high, my kids are always honest ... "I'm not interested in what I'm supposed to be learning, and I don't like practicing at all lately, but I can't imagine quitting." They seem to accept that daily practising is a reasonable expectation that teachers (and therefore parents) hold for music students.

I've portrayed this as a matter of respect. When you go to your lesson it's as if you're asking to be served up a meal of learning material. If you asked for a meal of food at someone's house and then didn't eat any of it but just dumped it in the garbage, that would really hurt their feelings. It's the same thing with learning meals. It's okay not to be hungry, but in that case, don't ask for a meal! So, if you're not going to practice next week, tell your teacher that today at your lesson and she won't give you assignments. But if you have a regular lesson, it would be rude and disrespectful not to eat the meal you've been served and at least make an efforts at the bits you don't like.

So generally my kids and I have been able to establish (a) that they want to continue to play their instruments and (b) that they enjoy their lessons and like being served up new learning assignments. So the trick then has been to work with them to help them connect the dots between what they want and what they need to do on a daily basis to satisfy their general desires. And that's where the solutions become totally practical things like when and where to practice and how much help and of what sort they want, and whether a change in emphasis or organization might be helpful, and whether a new game or gimmick or method of documentation might help.

On occasion I have agreed to use coercion to get my kids to practice over their in-the-moment protests ... but only ever upon their request, and only for one week at a time, until we reassess. There have been times when they've said quite clearly "I want to do my practicing every day but I just hate doing it and I can't get myself to do it. So I want you to make me, even if I say no." And I agree to be the Bad Cop for a week, and then we reassess, and invariably they've decided they want to try something else instead.

Which is fortunate, because I think that a regular pattern of coercing kids into practising tends to produce increasing resistence and a tendency for the kids to proclaim (and believe!) that they want to quit. Maté and Neufeld (in "Hold on to Your Kids") describe this as stimulating a child's "counterwill" and that's definitely something I want to avoid. I believe that in the absence of coercion and the counterwill it arouses, children by and large will make very sensible decisions. So far I've not been disappointed.

Tears in the key of A-flat

Erin sang in a youth choir for two years when the scheduling worked out during our weekly Nelson trip. Then it stopped working out. But soon thereafter, she decided to take the plunge and join the local community choir. Our immediate communities and surrounding region have only about 1000 residents, but the choir pulls in enthusiastic choristers from as far as 45 minutes away. Over the past 15 years or so, the group has grown into quite a strong musical ensemble -- far stronger than you'd expect in such a remote, sparsely populated area. They sing in tune, in four parts, acapella or accompanied, often with their entire program memorized. Erin took this on as her thing. She is extremely independent about it. I'm not even allowed in the door at rehearsals. I'm thrilled that she's found something musical that has nothing whatsoever to do with me -- and she loves it.

This year the director was travelling during the spring and the choir went on hiatus after a stunning holiday concert. But they got together earlier this month to put together three selections for a plaque-unveiling ceremony commemorating WWII soldiers from our area who were killed in battle. Erin was asked to play an unaccompanied violin prelude to a choral rendition of the "Ashokan Farewell" (used as the theme music for the PBS Civil War series, where it rightfully earned fame as a gorgeously haunting lament). The arrangement was in the very odd key (for a folk-type theme, certainly!) of A-flat major. The sheet music had no bowings in it, and no fingerings. I asked Erin if she needed any help working it out. She rolled her eyes and said "no."

So I left her to it. She practiced when I was out of earshot, as is her preference at the best of times. Choir members out and about in the community told me things like "I have trouble singing that piece at rehearsal, because Erin's violin playing gets me all choked up." So I stopped worrying. Today she performed and blew us all away. My mom sat in front of me and was in tears by the first bowstroke. It took me probably half a phrase longer. Her tone and phrasing were stunning. And then she sang too, with such joy and affection for the music and the experience of sharing it.

edited to add the second photo, courtesy of a friend

Friday, June 29, 2007

Milky musings

Our friends are getting a cow. I'm currently torn over the prospect of offering my kids unpasteurized milk. When I was a medical student I helped look after 5 kids who came down with invasive E. coli disease from drinking unpasteurized milk on a preschool farm visit. One of those kids died, another ended up on dialysis with kidney failure. Chuck grew up on a dairy farm, drinking milk straight from the cow, but strangely enough has no interest in non-store-bought milk. Then again, I know that most problems with unpasteurized milk spring from specific problematic handling practices, and that pasteurized milk is 'processed' and nutritionally depleted compared to raw. Maybe we'll buy their milk, but scald it and use it for yogourt. We certainly want to learn to milk their cow, and would love the chance to try cheese-making and butter-making. We've done these from store-bought, but somehow that doesn't seem quite as nifty.

We don't drink a whole lot of milk, at least not the kind of quantities I was raised on. My kids drink mostly water with meals and for quenching thirst during the day. They like milk with breakfast cereal, but it's a bit of an exception for my kids to actually pour themselves milk in a glass to drink. They did develop a fondness for Rice Dream a year or two ago, though. And they've always loved almond milk, warm or cold. Oy, the tetrapaks, though! Only the juice tetrapaks can even be "recycled" around here, and even with those I know in my heart of hearts that the sarcastiquotes around "recycled" are well-deserved.

I experimented with making almond milk when we first started ordering bulk fruit and nuts from Rancho Vignola each fall. It worked beautifully, but the grinding and filtering was messy and time-consuming. Almond milk was a rare treat. Cashew milk happened a little more often, since filtering wasn't necessary, but the pre-cooking of the millet was enough to prevent nut milk making from becoming part of my routine. I also tried making rice milk. Again, an acceptable end-product, but messy and time-consuming.

So, after kicking the idea around for a while and doing some research, I bought a Soyabella. It has vastly simplified the making of dairy-free milks, and has totally eliminated our use of tetrapaks. We use it in equal proportion for nut milks, rice milk and soy milk ... and various combinations thereof. The night before I measure out the raw ingredients, in this case a combination of cashews and soybeans.

Then I dump them into the milk-making screen cup, set that into the utility cup, and fill the whole thing with water.

In the morning I remove the metal cup and its soaked beans and nuts from the water, and attach the cup to the grinder part of the Soyabella. The grinding blade doesn't look too impressive but it certainly does its job. The cup twists on to make a cylindrical unit that is below the lid of the Soyabella jug.

Then I set the lid into the jug which has been prefilled with water. I plug it in, press "milk" and wait. For a few minutes the unit warms up from an element hidden beneath the bottom of the stainless steel jug, heating the water to just below the boil. It goes through four grinding/filtering cycles, steeps a little longer and then beeps to tell me it's done.

I add whatever flavourings inspire me -- often 1/4 tsp. of salt, two or three tablespoons of honey or maple syrup, sometimes some vanilla extract.

A quick stir, and we're ready to decant into a container for the fridge. Most milks keep 2-3 days in the fridge. Most l.6 L batches of alternative milks disappear around here in 24 hours, long before the thermophils get to them.

Mmm, mmm! I'll even confess that with my cashew-millet recipe, I empty out the paste that's left inside the screen cup, add maple syrup and milk, call it 'porridge' and enjoy it immensely by the spoonful. My kids think I'm nuts, so it's only the worms who are sad not to get their serving.

Camp photos

Some more photos from the homeschoolers' family camp we attended this past week.

That's Noah up on the high wire, easily walking between the trees. None of my kids seems to have the slightest concern about heights. They shrugged and said it was "easy" to walk high beams, drop themselves off rock faces, or strut the high wire.

Fiona wasn't directly involved in any of the activities, but did enjoy making some limited supervised use of some of the equipment, including the tarzan ropes, which she absolutely loved.

They all rappelled like this, my kids. Supremely comfortable, looking very relaxed, sitting well in their harnesses. Erin got the chance to practice hopping down the cliff face on rappel. Chuck and I climbed lots before kids. Now that they're pretty much all old enough, I think it's time to start climbing as a family. While "unclimbing" (rappelling) is serious fun, it's more of a ride than a skill. They want to start climbing.

Erin and a couple of the other older kids, watching another group member struggle across the tarzan ropes. She looks comfortable with this group, doesn't she? They were really nice kids, which certainly made a big difference. And interesting, too! The one on the right owns his own Hobart mixer and has his own bread-baking business. The one on the left has lived off the electrical grid since he was a year old.

Archery was the activity that convinced Noah to hop aboard the whole camp idea in the first place. I wondered if he might be disappointed. He was convinced archery would be for him, but he'd never tried it. He was not disappointed in the slightest, and seems to have a pretty good natural feel for the bow. He would like to pursue archery as a sport. We shall see.

This was a pretty fun co-operative game. The platform is actually a giant teeter-totter set on a large log. The object of the game is to get all the kids to step in pairs onto the platform, such that it stays balanced and doesn't hit the ground. And then to counter-balance one child who travels alone to the extreme end of the platform -- each child venturing solo to the end of the platform in turn -- maintaining the balance the whole time. In the photo the platform is tilting madly and kids are over-compensating and screaming. Lots of fun. We might want to build something like this at home.

Here's another one of my oh-so-relaxed, gravity-defying kids. Yep, climbing is definitely on the agenda for the summer for this family.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Homeschoolers at camp

For the past three days we were away at a Homeschoolers Family Camp. What happens when you bring together a couple of dozen homeschooled kids for a few days of games, activities and being together socially? Well, a lot, as it turns out. I found the whole experience pretty interesting. We had a lot of fun. The kids tried a lot of fabulous new activities and did really well, coming away feeling confident about themselves and their abilities. We were able to stay together as a family in one cabin, so my introverts had the crucial no-stress parts of their quiet bedtime routines preserved. My "less introverted" kids seemed to have left any vestige of their introverted tendencies at home. Sophie and Fiona quickly and happily became part of various packs of active friendly busy kids and even when I thought they'd surely be flagging, in need of some recharging, their energy and interest in group activities was always up for one more round of capture the flag.

Erin coped beautifully and without any apparent stress as the sole 'new kid' in the teen group of six, comprised of two sibling pairs and another girl, all of whom knew each other prior to the camp. While she held back for recharging time during unstructured interludes, during the scheduled activities she was right into whatever was being offered, smiling, cheerful and enthusiastic.

Noah was a little slow to warm to the social stuff. He gets easily intimidated by groups of agemate boys, since (as he has explained to me) there's an implicit expectation that he should be just like them, just as capable, interested in and knowledgeable about all the same things. And the camp was certainly dominated by boys in the 10-12 age group, all of whom knew each other and had the same toys along. So he hung back until he figured out who the more approachable boys were, and gradually found his stride by the last day. But he participated beautifully in the new activities he was looking forward to, without any concerns about the group-learning format.

I guess I came away feeling like "hey, my kids could cope with public school just fine if they had to." I mean, I've always been confident that they could cope academically. It's the social and temperament stuff I wondered about. I probably don't need to wonder about that anymore. It'd be okay. Not ideal, but okay.

Other, more general, enlightening observations:
  • homeschooled kids know how to line up
  • homeschooled kids know how to take turns -- waiting for their turn at the fun stuff, volunteering to take their turn for the not-fun stuff
  • homeschooled kids know how to work together co-operatively, both in play and in work (washing up in the kitchen)
  • homeschooled kids develop social hierarchies that can veer subtly towards exclusionary cliques when levels of parental supervision are low
  • homeschooled kids do fads (diabolos were huge -- coincidentally Noah and Sophie had just bought themselves some of these before the camp, but hadn't brought them)
  • homeschooled parents in the BC interior are almost all idealogically left-wing
  • school kids vacating a camp facility before a group of homeschoolers arrive may say that they cleaned out their cabins, but they're lying about the hundred and twenty thousand spitz shells and candy wrappers and potato chip bits tucked underneath the mattresses

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Quartet Concert

Erin and I performed last night as part of the Osprey String Quartet, to an always-enthusiastic crowd of locals. It was the first truly big program Erin had done with us, with a classical and romantic quartet on the program, complete, a little over an hour's worth of full-on playing. It was exhausting but so much fun. Here's a little bit of the development of the 4th movement of the Mozart. Erin certainly holds her own on second violin, don't you think?

Friday, June 22, 2007

Practicing Musette

(Disclaimer for benefit of violin teacher / grandmother: Yes, we know she's not really been assigned to learn Musette yet. She's supposed to be polishing Gossec Gavotte, and she is! But she loves Musette, so what can I do? And she's learning the right bowings, I promise.)

Look what we can do now, on a warm June day? We can practice outside, because there's no Abominable Dog to own the outdoors, to jump up, knock down and traumatize any four-year-olds. Every few days someone in our family remarks "I so don't miss Freya," and everyone else laughs and agrees.

So Fiona takes her violin outside. She stands on a big log round. It makes a perfect stage for her. It's in the shade, it's stable, and is at a good height. It's actually the log that the kids stand on to grab the Big Rope (tethered high in the trees overhead) for a swing. She plays a repetition of Musette. She fixes a bowing and practices it four times. Then she passes her violin to me for safekeeping.

Then it's time to use the stump for something else -- a swing on the Big Rope! Out she goes, way out over the lawn. The rope is 20 feet long, so it carves a marvellous slow arc. Fiona's dress flies, her legs splay, out, out, out she goes. And then, after a weightless instant, back, back, back she comes, right back onto the log. She takes her violin from me, and plays Musette again, and works on another few repetitions of an exercise.

And so it goes, over and over.

Morning surprise, again

Yesterday the bear surprised me. Today it was these alien children in our dining nook. Who are they? My children don't get up at 5 or 6 a.m.. Mine sleep until at least 9:30, sometimes well (well!) past noon. And when they eventually do get up, they laze around on the couch or in front of the computer or reading. At 7:30 a.m. these odd specimens had already been outside for some exercise, had come back in, cooked breakfast, and were cheerfully doing math.

This is definitely one of those "who'd of thunk it?" homeschooling occurrences. It'll probably never happen again. All the more reason to take a picture. Sophie finished Singapore Primary Math 4B this morning and will move onto the Grade 5 books at her leisure. Erin is now about halfway through Teaching Textbooks Algebra I. She likes working her problems on the whiteboard, because she can do straightforward simplification with a simple swipe of the thumb, rather than laboriously rewriting. She has completely abandoned the computer CDs and is using the textbook as her choice of resources. Whatever works!

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Solstice visitor

Drat, I thought we were done with these guys for the year. Usually once May rolls by, the bears have moved on to higher areas where the risk of human contact is lower. And I had hoped that with most of our food scraps going into the worm bin and the chicken corral, that there would be little in the main compost heap to attract bears. I will have to remind my other family members more often about not using the main compost except as a last resort. And this is just another reason to stop buying oranges. (Neither chickens nor worms will eat citrus peel.)

Last night Sophie was sleeping in a tent just to the left of the camera frame. Fortunately this bear seems skittish and not habituated to human contact. I expect it would have steered very clear of her. It ran off as soon as it heard my camera shutter.

Unfortunately it also seems to have made an attempt (failed, thankfully) to break into the chicken coop. The window was torn partly off its hinges, though one hinge held and the chicken wire screen inside would have provided an additional barrier. I've nailed the window shut for now.

Wish I'd had the zoom lens handy. You would have thought me very brave and/or very foolhardy with a zoomed in shot, but alas, the camera bag was still inside the minvan from last night's parent-kid soccer game and party. Bears are certainly a fact of life around here, and we get used to them to a certain extent. They're one reason we've wanted to have a dog around. I think we'll need to get the air rifle out again this year. A pellet at 20 metres is enough to give a bear an annoying sting. With young bears especially it's helpful if they have a few negative experiences with people and garbage. They're smart, and they do learn to associate the two, so their behaviour won't tend to become problematic. This bear looks like a 3- or 4-year-old. Not its first summer away from mama, but possibly its second. These days the wildlife officers don't trap and relocate black bears. It's extremely expensive to do so, black bears are far from endangered here, and the recidivism rate is quite high, no matter how high in the wilderness they're released. Bears habituated to humans and residential areas are generally just shot. So in a sense shooting a bear with a pellet gun to give it a nasty sting is doing it a favour, giving it a chance to unlearn its problematic behaviour. But today I just shot this guy with a camera. I'll give him another chance.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Two tomatoes, chapter 2

Here are the two tomato plants I wrote about ten days ago. Scissors are for scale. Sophie's plant has opened up a still bigger lead. In fact, mine doesn't seem to have done anything at all since . Isn't compost magic?

Adolescence? No thanks.

For years I have been saying "we're not doing adolescence in our family." I'm sure many people on the message boards and e-mail lists I frequent have quietly snickered and thought "just you wait..." Some have certainly snickered not so quietly. So far I stand by what I have believed all along -- adolescence is a social construct that comes of shortening childhood through the pressures of media, consumerism and peer-culture and delaying adulthood through impoverished expectations of teens and twenty-somethings. It's a period of little true responsibility, peer orientation and severed ties with family that is, anthropologically speaking, an unnatural anomaly. I've felt this in my gizzard since I was a teen myself.

Psychologist Robert Epstein has written a book called "The Case Against Adolescence," which I haven't yet managed to get my hands on. It's at the top of my wishlist. Here are excerpts from an interview he did recently in Psychology Today:

"We have completely isolated young people from adults and created a peer culture. We stick them in school and keep them from working in any meaningful way, and if they do something wrong we put them in a pen with other "children." In most nonindustrialized societies, young people are integrated into adult society as soon as they are capable, and there is no sign of teen turmoil."

"In this country, teens learn virtually everything they know from other teens, who are in turn highly influenced by certain aggressive industries. This makes no sense. Teens should be learning from the people they are about to become."

"The adversarial relationship between parents and offspring is terrible; it hurts both parents and young people. It tears some people to shreds; they don't understand why it is happening and can't get out of it. They don't realize they are caught in a machine that's driving them apart from their offspring—and it's unnecessary."

Epstein's book has just vaulted to the top of my must-read list.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Biology 101

Normally a post I write entitled Biology 101 would be about chasing frogs, or watching the garden grow, or planting trees or growing a sourdough culture. But this time it really is about a college-level introductory biology course. Actually it's about the texbook designed for such a course.

Sophie first expressed an interest in biology about a year ago. She was no doubt influenced by Noah's interest in chemistry. Sophie got quite excited by his foray into focused, though informal, study of a particular scientific area. After Noah got started on the RealScience4Kids Chemistry I program, she carved out her own area of interest in Biology. Perhaps she mostly liked the shinyness of the hardcover textbook, and the chance to do some semi-structured reading and lab activities with me. In any event, she talked me into buying the Biology I program, and enjoyed it a lot. We found the latter third of the program pretty lackluster, as it was mostly centred around natural science activities we'd done several times in the past (raising tadpoles, observing caterpillar metamorphosis, etc.), but she definitely enjoyed the more academic early part of the program with its emphasis on taxonomy and subcellular structure. And our reading of Bill Bryson's "A Short History of Nearly Everything" and biographies and historical fiction centred around biology has led her to a deeper understanding and a thirst for resources at a more complex level.

When we had extra SelfDesign Learning Allowance money to use up, Sophie again voiced a desire for a more comprehensive and complex biology reference book. My approach with the SelfDesign money has been to either buy items with immediate practical use for a specific child (eg. bicycle, piano lessons, art materials) or to purchase more academically-focused items with a likelihood of broad future appeal to multiple children, like the Teaching Textbook math programs. With this latter approach in mind I went hunting for a good biology reference book. Eventually I settled on Neil Campbell's "Biology: Concepts and Connections," intended to accompany a high school AP or introductory university biology course.

This publication is far more than a textbook; it's a course too. It comes with a CD-ROM and access code providing on-line MP3 lectures, videos, virtual labs, interactive investigations, self-evaluation quizzes, games, images and tutorials. The entire book can be accessed as an eBook, but the hard copy itself is well-written and beautifully laid out and worth the price in and of itself. If one's aim is to learn the material, I cannot see why it would make sense to spend several hundred dollars on a college course and then also go out and buy a $150 textbook. With textbooks like this, who needs a prof!?

I highly doubt Sophie will choose to work systematically through what is in effect a college Biology 101 course. But so far she's having great fun browsing through the book and taking the computer-based quizzes. She seems to have learned a heck of a lot from our casual reading and discussions over the past year. What kind of 8-year-old sees a question like this

Which of the following are required for natural selection to occur?
  1. heritable variability
  2. differential survival
  3. small population size
  4. heritable variability and differential survival
  5. heritable variability, differential survival and small population size

and clicks on 4 with scarcely a hesitation?

I think this publication will be useful in many ways over the years.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Microscopes for kids

We've had two optical microscopes and a hand-held magnifier available to the kids. A small Bausch & Lomb (i.e. high quality optics) 'scope we got off eBay for about $30, list price around $90, was the first purchase. It had a single 50X objective and the quality of the image was good. But it was small and fiddly to focus and the illumination was limited to indirect lighting. Plus we found that only our eldest could actually squint down the barrel and see anything. Our younger two (under 7 at the time) just couldn't reliably see through the barrel. It takes a fair bit of concentration and mental ability to train your eyes to see down a single barrel. They tried the hand-covering-other-eye trick (since they couldn't wink) but that didn't seem to help much, and it just left them unbalanced as they leaned over the scope, covered one eye and tried to adjust the focus with the other hand. The whole endeavour was just exhausting for them and frustrating.

We have brought home the medical clinic scope on a number of occasions. It's a professional quality scope with high magnification (suitable for micro-organisms like bacteria and yeasts) and an oil-immersion lens. Large, sturdy, great lighting. Our eldest saw a few interesting things with it, but the younger kids had the same "squinting down a tiny hole" challenges. Sometimes Noah (then 6) thought he could see something. Sophie (then 4) never did. The depth of field at high magnifications is negligible, so slide preparation has to be done properly (thin samples, maybe using a microtome, slide and cover slip, etc. or else just buying and using prepared slides). What happened was that the adult would spend 20 minutes in slide preparation, slide-gazing and fine-focusing, and then would get the kids to peek in and see what we'd found. It definitely didn't maintain child-led enthusiasm!

We gave up on the medical scope (will use it again when the kids are older), packed away the little Bausch & Lomb and I bought an inexpensive hand-held magnifier (15X magnification, I believe) and they seemed to like that more. With that lower magnification it had a large depth of focus and it could be brought to the eye, rather than vice versa, so my then-6yo was able to use it reasonably well. Also, at low magnification, things bore more resemblance to their unmagnified images, and that somehow made the viewing "realer" and more exciting for the kids.

I still had microscope dreams for the kids, so I did a lot of reading about kids & scopes. I decided that if we could afford to be a microscope at some point, it would probably make the most sense to buy a high-quality binocular dissecting microscope (i.e. relatively low magnification, two barrels to look down for relaxed viewing, large depth of field, easy-to-use focusing knobs). But these 'scopes are expensive. So we waited.

Then I stumbled across reviews and images from the Digital Blue. Debbie posted some of her kids' images for me on a message board. I was really impressed. So we used Grandma's Christmas-and-birthday-money-for-the-year to order one. We bought a slightly older version on sale and got it for about $50 (the best price I've seen lately is about $150). We're really happy with it.

It has low to medium magnification (10X, 60X and 200X). The barrel can be removed so that, like a hand-held magnifier, it can be used to examine things you can't easily fit on the stage -- fingerprints, eyeballs, the winding on the strings of a violin, the surface of a rock, etc.. There is none of the exhausting squinting down the barrel -- you're looking at an image as big as your computer screen. At low magnification the depth of field is vast and focusing is dead easy. Medium magnification the kids can use easily with a bit of practice. "High" (i.e. 200X) magnification focusing is of course fussy (that's just the nature of the physics) and it is difficult to get sharp images without doing real glass-and-coverslip slide preparation, but it is possible with patience. Using the scope is no longer a solitary taking-turns endeavour ... three or four kids +/- adults can watch in real time as something leaps into focus. They can point on the screen ("what's that?" or "move over this way"). The image is not inverted as in a regular scope, so moving around the image is easy and intuitive. We can capture images to save and share (later, with daddy, or with a friend, or to insert in another document like a website or newsletter). We can save video clips of little critters in motion. When you can retrieve and re-examine images, everything stays more real and present in your memory.

The microscope software installed beautifully in a minute or two with no hitches in both WindowsXP and W98. The microscope has proved sturdy enough for our use. I don't worry about supervising, and sometimes the barrel gets treated a little roughly -- no problems so far. It continues to interest the kids. While is does run through the computer, unless you are capturing and exporting images, you don't have the sense while you're using it that you're "using the computer". All the activity is at the microscope end, with the computer screen simply being a real-time video feed of what the scope is seeing. In other words, your hands can stay totally on the microscope and your specimens, and you don't need to fuss with the mouse or keyboard except for, say, adjusting lighting off the "auto" setting, or viewing previously-captured images. Really I can't say enough great things about this microscope and its developmental suitability for kids.

The above post was written 18 months ago and I stand by everything I wrote then. Our microscope is still functioning well. The QX3 we own has now been replaced on the market by the nearly-identical QX5. Oh, and in case you're wondering, that's a J-cloth in the image above, at 60X magnification.

The White Queen

Every spring we make a point of a special trip to town to grab an ice cream cone at "My Aunt's Place" and hang out playing chess at the giant outdoor chess set next door. Sophie, Noah and Erin are all capable chess players. Fiona isn't quite there yet, but she likes to be involved. Today the older kids gave her the job of being the White Queen.

Here she is on the h7 square. She wiggles and jumps and giggles just like a real queen should, all without leaving her square (much). Periodically she can be heard to say "I want to kill something. Can I kill that knight?"

There's a lot to be said for a community where people who own vacant lots do things like this with them, just because they think they're worth doing. This lot is on main street, across from the post office. Smack dab in the middle of a 'downtown' comprised of a dozen or so small businesses interspersed with private homes, gradually sloping towards the lake. It's a great place to hang out and wave at people going in and out of the post office.

Look what I got myself. A real live teenager. I took this photo today as she examined the chess board for a move. Isn't she beautiful? She's an amazing soccer defenceman, plays music like an angel, gets along with her family and actually cleaned her bedroom this week. I think I'll keep her.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Grain to bread

I love this baby. It's a KitchenAid stand mixer, the lowly "Classic" model with the 250W motor. I got it for free with grocery store points back when Erin was a toddler. It probably gets used 5-10 times a week and it just keeps on trucking despite the fact that it does far more work that it's technically supposed to be capable of. Mostly I use it for bread, lots of bread.

I never set out to become a home-baker of bread. Many years ago we got a breadmaker, from that same grocery store points program, and I learned for the first time about yeast rise cycles and bread recipes. I got kind of hooked on the push-button approach to home-baked bread. Store-bought bread was never quite as delicious, and it certainly didn't evoke a sense of accomplishment.

Then one thunderstormy night our breadmaker got fried in a power surge. I discovered I missed fresh home-baked bread. At least I could still do pizza dough -- I used the same recipe I'd always used in the breadmaker, and just set my mixer and dough hook to the kneading task. It dawned on me that it probably wasn't that much more complicated to bake bread than it was to bake pizza crusts. But what a lot of effort that would be! I doubted it was worth it.

But then I bought a Really Big Bowl. Suddenly I could make four loaves of bread dough at once, for only slightly more fuss and bother than it had taken to make one loaf four times in the automatic breadmaker. Soon I was into a routine of traditional bread baking once or twice a week.

Nowadays I start with wheat berries, or sometimes a combination of wheat and rye wheat. I got a grain grinder attachment for the mixer a couple of years ago -- the 325 or 475W models are recommended for the grinder, but my unit does just fine, thank you very much. I usually do this step the night before, and lately I've been starting an overnight sponge. So last thing before we start our readaloud each evening, I run the grain-grinder. After story time I mix the sponge.

The next morning I mix and knead the dough. I usually do three or four loaves at a time. My mixer will only handle about half that much dough, so I split it in two and hand-knead half while the other half gets kneaded in the mixer, then I trade the two lumps and carry on. I actually like kneading. It's sort of a zen thing.

The bread goes through its three rises in the morning and by early afternoon we have piping hot fresh loaves. One usually ends up in the freezer, the others disappear over the next two or three days.

I use Laurel's Kitchen Bread Book as my reference and the source of a few favourite recipes, though I improvise a lot. I can't imagine going back to buying bread on a regular basis. My increasingly snobby palate demands the type of loaf that costs $4 a loaf, which I can't bring myself to spend except in case of emergency.

My evolution into bread-bakingdom mirrors the way many other changes in my life have taken shape over the past decade and a half. They have crept up on me, gradually, partly due to serendipity, partly because they felt right. They have connected me more closely to the source of things and caused me to think of the implications of simple actions, of how choices we make ripple out into the rest of our lives and the world around us. They have encouraged me to live more mindfully, more deliberately and with more forethought. These changes accrue naturally, with a logic of their own, each taking root in the last. Sometimes I don't think my old self would recognize me today.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Patience and progress

My children have taught me patience by rewarding it. Not the sort of patience that sits and chews its nails, willing itself not to say or do anything, expecting a sign any day now, controlling its frustration. The sort of patience that knows important things are going on, whether they're visible or not, and is able to hum a tune and weed the garden and enjoy a good book in the meantime.

I find that as time goes on my definition of 'progress' becomes broader and more multi-dimensional, my powers of observation become keener, and I am able to see progress all the time. Not that I never have moments of worry and frustration. But not over academic progress, not very often, anyway. It seems to have got easier as the passing years' sunshine and rain have rinsed and bleached the schoolishness out of my system.


We're reading aloud this week from "The Ear, the Eye and the Arm" by Nancy Farmer, set in Zimbabwe in 2194, a hundred years after plastic has been banned. Down-and-out miners live in old toxic landfill sites, burrowing down to excavate plastic cups and vinyl duckies.

This book, and several other topical discussions, articles and DVDs we've experienced lately, has led us to start thinking anew about deplasticking our lives. This can easily seem overwhelming. For instance, we know that if we grow more of our own food, we won't have to buy as much in plastic bags and bottles. But to water our plants we need a hose -- made of vinyl -- and a hose fitting, packaged in plastic. Everything seems to lead to plastic.

But progress is progress, so I'm going to try to focus on one or two new things a week where we can make small bits of progress. This week it's sprouts. I'm making an effort to keep growing sprouts regularly, rather than buying them in plastic clamshell containers. I order organic sprouting seed from Mumm's every year or two. This year I'll order extra large sizes to avoid even the little bit of plastic in the smaller ziploc pouches. In the photo is my current batch of China Red Radish sprouts, happily growing in a canning jar on a kitchen ledge.

Wormy again

All the chicken poop I added to the compost a month and a half ago is doing amazing things. It's about halfway finished composting already and we'll have another 10 cu. ft. of compost by the middle of the summer -- unprecedented! But the truly cool thing is that it's provided an environment for the growth of a huge colony of red wigglers, the much-sought-after composting worms. (Much sought-after in certain circles, anyway. Depends who you hang out with, I suppose.)

Three years ago we built a worm bin and purchased a pound of red wigglers to stock it. Our high quality food scraps went to the chickens, the middle grade stuff to the worms, and only a small quantity of the low-grade stuff went out to join the yard waste in the compost pile. This was a good strategy for keeping the bears and other wildlife at bay. Alas, the Abominable Dog dumped the worm bin, which we had been keeping in the carport at the time. Bye bye worms.

But now we're rid of the dog, and coincidentally zillions of red wigglers have shown up in the compost pile. So I've restarted the bin. It's chewed up a bit, courtesy of the aforementioned canine pest, but it's still functional. I've been grabbing a handful of worms every few days to stock the worm bin. They seem happy in there. They're starting to chow down on coffee grounds, grey guacamole and leftover pasta.

I love having a worm bin. (Okay, I'll admit it -- I love having worms. I'm not alone either. There are lots of enthusiastic groups of vermiphiles out there on the 'net.)

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Early math

Sophie was four at a time when Noah and Erin were working through Miquon Math and Singapore Primary Math respectively. She got it into her head that four-year-olds should be able to do math just like their older siblings. I had seen immense value in the years of informal mathematical learning the older kids had done through life and play, and so I didn't want to hurry her into a 'program.' I put her off and put her off. We played math games, like those in the "Family Math" book. That was fun, but she wanted to do A Real Math Book. So I made one for her. It was just a booklet of the sorts of games I thought would be fun for us to play together. We had a great time playing with it for a month or so. We played every last game until she mastered all the skills and concepts. "Now can I have a Real Math Book?" she asked. I couldn't win. I caved in and bought her the Miquon Math books. (As it turned out, she did very well starting Miquon at 4 1/2. I thought it would be too much for her, but all those games had given her a solid grounding.)

Fast-forward four years. Fiona turned four while Noah and Sophie were both in the thick of Singapore Primary Math work. The middle kids are all eagerly progressing through their math programs with a lovely pre-bedtime ritual of focused time with me, and Fiona wants a part of that. Plus she just likes math, she really does. So the Cuisenaire Booklet and Cards that I put together for Sophie have found new life in our home. The math lab trays are out and getting plenty of use. Fiona is an eager math lab brat. She will play anything with cards and dice, but games with cards, dice and cuisenaires are the best of all. Sophie has been very helpful -- she remembers these games fondly and still enjoys playing them, so she'll often entertain Fiona for a round or two. I also tried to distract Fio' with the Singapore Early Bird materials, Kumon follow-the-dots books and mazes. She finished them quickly and has repeatedly asked for something more substantial, more like what the big kids use.

And tonight we had tears that there was no Real Math Book to begin. Meaning Miquon. I will have to relent and order the first book for her. I will try, as always, to keep the Miquon work playful and discovery-based, r ather than workbook-centred. That's really how it's intended, which is why I like Miquon -- it's about as close to unschooling as a math program can get. Plus it's a brilliant program for developing deep, logical and creative mathematical thinking, introducing all four operations within the first few months, developing algebraic-type skills early on, making extensive use of those brilliant cuisenaire rods as manipulatives. Although it wouldn't have been my choice, the early start on Miquon doesn't seem to have hurt Sophie any. She's still an eager and capable little mathematician. Here's hoping Fiona ends up the same.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Two tomato plants

The deer and the bears and the crows and ravens eat out of our compost pile. You'd think we'd try to do something about that. We did. For years we tried various containers and covers and bins and the like. A lot of containers and covers and bins got trashed. Bears are strong. We tried putting the compost up against the house. We ended up with bears up against the house. Enough. We said uncle. Now we just build an open pile in the far corner of the property. It's a long trek, especially in winter, but at least we don't have large ursine creatures hanging out on our deck in the evenings.

All this means that we don't produce a whole lot of compost. This spring I got only enough for two and a half of our raised beds. Sophie's bed and Fiona's bed got a full helping of compost. Noah's (made next) got the leftovers. Mine, the final bed, got none at all. I planted anyway.

Guess which one is Sophie's tomato plant, and which one is mine? What an amazing illustration of the value of natural soil enrichment! I am stoked about compost! Go chickens, go, poop for all you're worth!

Friday, June 08, 2007

Why I blog

  • I started because it was one of the few things I could do while breastfeeding seemingly-permanently-latched nurslings.
  • Because I like to write what I like to write.
  • Because my kids, who don't think much of praise, enjoy reading about what I notice in our lives and what makes me proud.
  • Because someday these photos and reflections will help us remember times that passed so fleetingly.
  • Because slowing down to write about what is going on in our lives makes me ponder it all more thoughtfully. Writing helps me look beneath the surface of our lives. I become more aware, more present in my own life and in the lives of my children due to this reflective process.
  • Because a blog is a distillation of our lives that highlights the noteworthy, the photo ops, the moments of joy, the turning points. Reading back over my previous entries reassures me that despite what can seem in the moment like endless weeks and months of stagnation, stuff is happening. My blog is like the great-aunt who always comments how much you've grown since she last saw you, even though you haven't noticed a thing.
  • Because I'm writing blog-like weekly reports about my kids anyway half the year for the SelfDesign program we're part of, so it's easy just to copy & paste into my own record here.
  • Because I'm useless at keeping a journal or a scrapbook.
  • Because I'm useless at writing and sending photos to extended family.
  • Because I'm supposed to be working to a June 15 deadline on the accounting and income taxes.
  • Because it feeds my soul.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

A mathematical year

Noah has completed the Singapore Primary Math program. Since he looked up from playing with blocks at 39 months of age and told me "1, 4, 9 and 16 are all square numbers" I've known this kid has a math brain. Thinking back even earlier, he was a very late talker, and I distinctly remember him counting at 18 or 19 months of age by looking at a group of objects and saying "na, na, na, na, na, na, NAH!" in a rising vocal cadence. He was working out one-to-one correspondence, and the rhythm of mathematical patterns, long before he could talk.

He balked at formal math and basic arithmetic, though. I offered Miquon Math to him at age 5. He was keen for about a week and did two or three dozen pages. That was that. At age 6 he picked up the Miquon Red (2nd) Book and did most of that over the course of a couple of months. Then he ran out of steam in the Blue (3rd) Book. At age 7 1/2 he decided he might like to try Singapore Math. I had him do the placement test and he scored "ready for 2B." I didn't believe the test, ordered 2A, and realized that the test was right, he could do much more than I thought he could -- he was definitely ready for 2B. I ordered it. He dived in ... and was rather underwhelmed. Over the next couple of years he would occasionally get out the 2B or 3A books and do an exercise or two but he wasn't really getting anywhere. He had a lot of perfectionistic anxiety over his formal math work. He would miss the obvious, assuming the questions were complicated, and get angry at himself over his struggles. He clearly had a great mathematical mind but the arithmetic would send him into a tailspin.

I wasn't terribly happy about Noah's relationship with math. Our family has always steered clear of anything grade-levelled, with the sole exception of Singapore Primary Math, because I don't want my kids comparing themselves to external benchmarks. But I really like the Primary Math program and figured I could always explain to the kids that the numerical levels referred to something Singaporean that bore no relationship to Canadian grades. Noah didn't buy it. I knew he was brilliant at math, but he thought he was 'behind,' and even when he felt like doing some math work, he invariably ended up anxious and upset. And the more I just let him be, the 'behinder' he got, and the more demoralized.

Last fall we had an optimistic heart-to-heart about things, and he decided he'd like to do some math to sort of "catch up to the interesting stuff." It's not something I would have encouraged him to commit to, but once again I'm grateful to the SelfDesign program that we were put in a situation where discussing his educational needs and desires in an somewhat organized way was expected. Did he want to do any math bookwork? If so, what? At that point he was technically working in 3B. He wrote into his SelfDesign Learning Plan that he would like to finish the Grade 4 and 5 Singapore levels this academic year. A lofty goal, but I figured if he wanted to do it, he could.

And so, in October he and I settled into a routine of spending 15-20 minutes working on math together most evenings. During the first two or three months there were regular perfectionistic meltdowns. It was obvious the mathematical concepts were easy for him, because when he was relaxed and optimistic, he would blow me away, doing complex multi-step calculations in his head. But there were many many days when something would trigger those perfectionistic meltdowns -- and once he reached that point even the simplest of math was confusing for him. Still, he didn't want to adjust his learning plan. We just kept giving things a fresh start each night. A lot of evenings were fine, but during those first couple of months, there were many that were a struggle. I wondered whether supporting him in this was really the right thing to be doing.

But by December he had covered a lot of material, and meltdowns were becoming less frequent. By February, they'd almost entirely become a thing of the past. He was learning easily and retaining it very well indeed. I can only assume that this is because he has such a rich pre-existing understanding of the basic sense of math and mathematical relationships. Conceptually he was light-years beyond his level of arithmetical ability. By April he had completed his goal for the year. I thought he'd decide to stop doing regular math, but no, he carried on into level 6. "Because the books are purple," he said. "That's the viola colour. I have to do those books." And now he's finished level 6 (Canadian/U.S. Grade 7, more or less). And his favourite part of math is Algebra, so we're moving right on to the Algebra 1 program from Teaching Textbooks. I'm a little concerned about the simplicity of the problems in this program in comparison with Singapore Math, but we're giving it a whirl. So ... from Singapore 3B (Grade 4?) to Grade 8 level math in just over 8 months.

What amazes me is how much easier math has become for him as he's worked through to considerably "harder" levels. What he has gained is not so much arithmetical skill, though he has certainly gained a lot of that. What he's most importantly gained is confidence and optimism, and a wonderful object lesson in the value of plugging away at the mundane in order to gain an affirming and motivating sense of mastery and a launch into more interesting work.

Managing risk

Teens are Hard-Wired for Risky Behaviour , Child Psychiatry researchers at NIMH claim. This is supposed to surprise us? Then again, I believe that much of what comprises typical adolescence is a cultural construct. So maybe this is news. Apparently it has an evolutionary advantage:

"It is risky to leave your parents and go out on your own, but that same behavior is also good for the gene pool."

Makes sense, though I'm not sure exactly how much "going out on your own" was involved in passing out of childhood in hunter-gatherer tribes. Some, I suppose.

Someone on an e-mail list recently suggested an evolutionary advantage for night-owling. Who would be the tribe's most logical night-fire tender, keeping watch for predators and attackers? Kids with almost-grown bodies but without the fully developed wisdom, skills and responsibilities of the adults.

These are interesting theories. We're certainly experiencing an extreme resurgence of night-owling with our adolescent these days. (Anyone got a tribal fire that needs tending through the night? I've got the kid for you.) Risk-taking? Not yet, really. I expect it'll come.

I've been reading Michael Ungar's "Too Safe For Their Own Good: How Risk and Responsibility Help Teens Thrive" and I've had a "Reviving Ophelia"-type experience doing so, finding so much resonance with my own adolescence experiences, commenting over and over to myself "yes, this is what I felt when I was 14 and couldn't explain any of it!" Ungar's premise is that children and teens who are not given experience with reasonable, manageably risky situations will tend to take unreasonable risks. Neither situation is perfectly safe, but the former is much more safe than the latter.

On parenting message boards I've encountered parents who believe it is never safe to leave a child alone in a parked vehicle. Not at age 4 in a locked vehicle while securely harnessed in a carseat in minus-twenty weather so that mom can cross busy gas lanes for 90 seconds to pay at a kiosk. Not at age 8 with the doors locked, a walkie talkie or cellphone, the keys in mom's pocket, and the windows cracked while mom runs into the mall to pick up photos. Not at age 14 to finish a chapter in an interesting novel while mom runs into the grocery store for a few minutes.

I will unabashedly confess that my kids get left alone in the vehicle frequently. Part of this is due to the local climate of safety. We live in rural area far from cities, nowhere near major highways. If you're at a gathering and someone has parked their vehicle in such a way that you're blocked in, usually the keys are in the vehicle, and you just get in and move it if you need to get your own car out. No one locks their homes if they're just out for the day. Children walk to school alone from kindergarten age. That's the culture I live in, in my clean and safe little corner of Canada. But part of the reason I leave my kids unattended is that I've instinctively felt that this small amount of risk is good for them.

I don't do it mindlessly. We've worked up gradually to things like being left unattended in the minivan. Starting at age 8 or 9. Initially short spurts, with the vehicle locked, the older kids only, and walkie talkies at the ready. Gradually for longer periods, and without the walkie talkies. Eventually with Fiona too. Home alone? Climbing a rock bluff? Using kitchen knives? Lighting the woodstove? The same sort of graduated approach. Always moving towards more responsibility, with managed risks.

Part of the reason is that I don't want my kids growing up in fear. I want them to believe that the world is basically a decent place, that people are mostly kind and good. I don't want them operating on the premise that everyone they don't know is a potential predator, every tree a skull fracture waiting to happen.

ButUngar's book has made me realize that this isn't the whole story. My children need experience with reasonable, managed risk, because if they don't get it, they are likely to do what I did in adolescence, which is to take unreasonable, unmanaged risks.

It seems to take us human beings a lot of effort to keep risk in perspective. I know parents who won't let their school-aged kids make their own toast because it's too dangerous, but who unthinkingly pop them into the minivan for totally discretionary trips to the park or the corner store or a friend's house. I know families who won't let their preschoolers eat non-organic apples offered at a playdate, but who drive them around with just adult seatbelts on. Despite our big brains we humans are not very good at keeping the big picture, at sorting through long-term and short-term risks, in comparing the rare nasties with the more commonplace serious events. The bottom line is that life on planet earth is pretty safe these days, so we're talking about risks that are very small, risks that live in the abstract world of statistical probability too small to be appreciated in concrete ways.

My 10-year-old might have a 1 in 1.7 million chance of coming to significant harm because I leave him in the minivan while I grocery shop. It's tempting to think "That's a small risk, but it's always better to be safe than sorry. I couldn't live with myself if he came to harm." But Ungar's book points out that there's a hidden risk that has to be balanced out. Simplistically speaking, if my 10-year-old grows up without the experience of gradually incremented risk and responsibility, like staying in the minivan alone, at age 16 he might end up having a 1 in 20 risk of coming to significant harm due to unmanaged high risk behaviours like underage drinking, drug use, unprotected sex and general physical recklessness. Maybe this really is the choice: 1 in 1.7 million at age 10, or 1 in 20 at age 16.

I'll choose the 1 in 1.7 million, thank you very much, and Noah will happily amuse himself reading Asterix books while I grocery shop.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Ten meals

I mentioned in a previous post that my picky eaters make meal-planning a bit of a challenge. My kids are picky. At various ages and stages, some of them have been ridiculously picky. We had a white-food-itarian in the family for quite a while (white bread, pasta, butter, potatoes, rice, milk, not much else). Add to this the wrinkle that half of us are vegetarians, while one or two would happily live on meat alone, and family mealtime gets very complicated.

When I was a kid we were made to eat our veggies. It was considered rude and disobedient not to eat what you were served. But this approach just didn't sit right with me as a parent. It's been shown that most preschoolers and young school-aged kids do develop a degree of pickyness, and it's been suggested that this is hard-wired, and had a survival advantage in hunter-gatherer societies. Tribal children old enough to wander away from their caregivers, but not old enough to have learned which plants were dangerous, were well-served by aversions to unfamiliar foods. I also recognized that at least a couple of my kids had some pretty significant sensory sensitivities in other areas. Just as they found sock seams and shirt tags noxious and intolerable, maybe they experienced tomato sauce the same way? Who was I to judge?

I didn't want to do battle over meals. For a while I just made whatever I wanted and let the kids eat it or (more often) not, as was their desire. Eventually I just found this approach too demoralizing. Night after night, week after week, month after month, I'd cook yummy wholesome family meals and my kids would head to the kitchen for a piece of bread and butter or a bowl of cheerios. I no longer enjoyed cooking at all. At ALL.

Next I made an effort to provide a buffet arrangement, or two options for the entrée, purposely choosing at least one option that each child would likely eat. But this wasn't much better. It made for a kind of cooking I don't much like -- three- or four-pot cooking of several different menu items. Time-consuming and messy. And the kids seemed to change their preferences as quickly as I figured them out.

When we started our big kitchen renovation in 2005, we had a discussion about how to manage meals while without a kitchen. This was kind of a turning point. We came up with a rota of 7 meals that everyone agreed to eat, meals that could be cooked on a camp stove on the deck, and/or bulk-prepared and stored in the freezer. I was pleasantly surprised that we could agree on 7 meals. There was a certain amount of compromising involved. "Fine, we can do lasagna, but none of that carroty soup, then." That sort of thing. And the kids decided that everyone could name one Banned Meal, a meal they personally found so disgusting that no matter how many other family members wanted it included on the rota, it would not be. But just one banned meal per person.

In the two years since, we've loosely stuck to our program of compromise-based agreements, bans and a rota. Likes and dislikes have shifted, and we've discovered new meals. Sometimes we get tired of one and it quietly exits the rota for a few months. For the most part, the approach works. I can maintain the bare minimum of cooking motivation. The kids eat most of what they're served. No one is forced to eat stuff they hate. Because the food is, if not enjoyed by all, at least tolerated, a little more adventurousness is slowly evolving. The kids now understand that the cook has feelings and does not want to cook at all if diners make loud sighs and sulk off in search of cheerios.

I wish there were more variety. We only have about 10 meals on our rota. But this is the best solution we've found, and I can certainly live with it. Today Fiona ate a whole piece of tomato, and liked it.

Salsa Fresca

We've evolved "Nacho Night" here at our home-filled-with-picky-eaters. It's not an evening snack; it's actually one of our suppers. With only about ten meals everyone will tolerate, we get some serious mileage out of nachos. Nacho Night is one of my few concessions to the meatatarians. Once every couple of months I buy a kilo of organic ground beef and fry up some mexi-beef, then freeze it in small packets for Nacho Nights. It's one of several optional garnishes for the nachos. The others are salsa roja (yer regular out-of-a-jar red salsa), sour cream, guacamole, bean dip and salsa fresca. The salsa fresca is my favourite -- from my perspective it's the whole point of Nacho Night.

Salsa Fresca

5 small, or 3 medium tomatoes
1/2 medium onion
1 or 2 jalapenos (omit in case of picky children, or likewise substitute with 1/3 cup finely chopped bell pepper)
1/2 cup chopped cilantro
juice of 1/2 lime
1/4 to 1/2 tsp. salt, to taste

Chop veggies. Mix together with lime juice and salt. Serve with corn chips, or mix 1/2 cup with 3 mashed avocados for a lovely guacamole. Or both. Yum!

I hated cilantro the first few times I tasted it. Definitely an acquired taste for me. After a 2-month road-trip to Mexico in 1991, though, I positively craved it. The aroma is so evocative for me since that trip. We are waiting on our garden cilantro. This week's cooler temperatures and rain will make the cilantro happy. It's so wet here this week that the laundry is hanging on the indoor airer again.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Absolute E

Fiona has been learning to whistle. This morning she puffed out a nicely audible breathy note and said "I can whistle E." And she could, and it was an E, bang on. So it's official. All of my kids have absolute pitch.

I've been interested in the phenomenon of absolute pitch (what is also somewhat misleadingly referred to as perfect pitch) for years. It's best described as excellent pitch-memory. A person with absolute pitch will be able to hum or sing a particular pitch even if they don't have a reference. They'll get out of bed in the morning and decide to hum a little tune they like and they'll start it exactly on E-flat above middle C if that's where they want to start it. A person with absolute pitch who also knows the name of the notes and can read music will be able to hum a B-flat if you want one, or tell you that the choir is singing a half-step above the notated pitch.

Absolute pitch is not to be confused with excellent relative pitch skill. A person with excellent relative pitch skill can play or sing perfectly in tune, provided they're given some sort of reference pitch or starting point. Most musical instruments provide that starting point. Singers most commonly gather their reference point from an instrument playing accompaniment. Most professional musicians do not have absolute pitch; what they have is perfect relative pitch. Absolute pitch can actually make some things awkward. If you're singing in a choir, from printed music, and the piece is being sung one note lower to accommodate the sopranos' ranges, it is very disconcerting to someone with absolute pitch to be singing an E-flat while the reference on the printed page clearly says F. If you're listening to a recording (less common in these days of digital music, thank goodness) that is playing back at a slightly slower or faster speed, you can't enjoy it at all -- all you can think about is how the pitch is 'off.' Absolute pitch is a burden as well as a gift.

I've got it. One of my brothers has got it. It used to be thought that absolute pitch was a very rare ability dictated by the genetic hand one had been dealt. These days, when children tend to begin formal music training at younger ages, with nature/nurture issues the focus of countless studies, it's become apparent that absolute pitch ability is not actually that rare. It's been suggested that all of us have the potential to develop it, and it's just a question of whether we receive the sorts of experiences that nurture it. The ease with which we can develop it seems to be genetically mediated. It's interesting to me that of myself and my three siblings, all of whom reached a professional playing level on our stringed instruments, the two with full-on absolute pitch ability are the two of us who are genetically related to my parents, while my two adopted siblings have excellent relative pitch.

About a month and a half ago Fiona became interested in doing some note-reading work on pitch. My older kids were closer to 7 or so when we began, but Fiona was eager, and nearing the end of Suzuki Book 1, so I figured some playful, low-key pitch-reading games would be fine. Her interest has abated a little now, but I think that the work we did matured her awareness of pitch names. Whereas previously she thought of A and E and D and G as names for her violin strings (strings which happen to have certain pitches), she now thinks of those letter names, and others, as names of pitches. And so today it was perfectly natural for her to whistle and tell me the note was an E. The pitch-reading work we did hadn't given her absolute pitch, but it allowed me to diagnose it. With my older kids, I had to wait longer to gather definitive evidence of their pitch-memory skill. Sometimes the evidence was subtler -- they'd complain that I was singing some song 'wrong' (because, I assumed, I'd started on a different pitch than the one they were used to), or they'd consistently sing "Happy Birthday" starting on exactly D above middle C (who would notice this but a mom with absolute pitch herself?). I haven't been hoping that they'd gain absolute pitch ability -- in fact, I haven't really been thinking about it at all, except that because of my training I'm aware of the little clues that they might be developing it -- but it's been an interesting thing to observe.

This whole issue of absolute pitch is, I've realized, a pithy example of my educational approach with my kids. I've tried to give them a life that is rich in musical experiences. Not because I wanted any specific outcome, but because I believe there is value and joy in music. I haven't actively taught them anything, except where they've requested active teaching. I haven't created situations that allow me to assess their ability; sometimes it has taken years for a serendipitous situation to arise that has given me claer evidence of their ability. I've taken private delight in evidence of ability, but I haven't portrayed it to them or to anyone as some sort of major praiseworthy accomplishment. To me it's simply been a natural part of their learning, driven by interest and joy.

And so it goes, whether for math, the history of science, reading, parts of speech, or writing cursive.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Pullets and Cockerels

Okay, what we've got here is an Ameraucana pullet and cockerel. Which is which? If you're like me you'd assume that first guy with the rooster-tail and the serious struttin-about look to him is the cockerel. But nope, he's a she. She's got more wing-feathers, and her tail-feathers stick up nicely already. The future rooster is the obsequious little guy with the stumpy tail. This is Skunk, who is starting to feather out in a lovely dark brick red over the shoulders. With the barred rocks we can tell the boys and girls apart from the combs, but Ameraucanas are late-bloomers of little itty-bitty peacombs.

Fiona would make a brilliant farm kid. She is eager, comfortable and assertive around the chickens, absolutely fearless, quick at catching them and excellent at predicting their behaviour. She spends a lot of time inside the chick corral. Today she got all the kids involved in a contest -- stick your bare feet through the fence into the corral and see how long you can endure the eager pecking of your toenails, cuticles and the skin between your toes. I'm not sure anybody won.

Taking back the outdoors

Look at our lawn. There's a ball left out, and a deck chair. Neither will be chewed. There is no poop on the lawn because this morning I scooped it all up with, I confess, a sense of pleasure. There are children in the forest, playing what children play in forests. They went outside without asking first, without a parent needing to go out and pen any Abominable Dog at all. Erin came in from the cabin without having to yell from her door until someone heard and an adult went out to hold back the A.D. The scratches on my torso from being jumped up on while carrying Fiona in from the van are going to heal without me getting new ones.

I have enjoyed ranting here about the Abominable Dog, and we have joyously been planning our "Doggone Celebrations" for weeks, but I confess it has been a long and difficult journey getting to thing point. We really did all want to make it work. I felt strongly that a dog is a member of the family, and you simply do not farm a family member out just because they are difficult to live with. I didn't think this was a good example to set for the kids.

I tried different training approaches, watched a lot of videos, read three different highly recommended books on gentle dog-training. Most of these resulted in improved behaviour with the adults, but the children, having been knocked down / wrestled with / slobbered and scratched all over too many times, had simply lost their desire to participate in further training. The improvements in behaviour with adults never transferred to the children. We tried to get a professional involved, but the trainer serving our area is 50 minutes away and is so busy that she would require us to come to her, with the children, for every session. Too much driving for kids who spend too much useless time in the minivan as it is, and didn't really want to participate anyway.

We hoped she'd get easier to work with as she matured, but as she neared her second birthday it was apparent things were really no better this spring than last. Because the children simply couldn't play outside while the dog was out, and I tend to always be where the children are, and Chuck isn't home much, we ended up with a situation where the dog was starved for social interaction. We brought her into the kitchen for 2 or 3 hours of socializing most days through the late winter and spring, but none of this seemed to have any effect on her outdoor behaviour.

The unrelenting attacks on unsuspecting outdoor children, the fact that our friends and extended family had to give up unannounced visits, the injuries (never ill-intentioned, always just the result of exhuberant greeting or playing) to hands, arms and torsos ... it took a while but eventually every last child was saying "I want to get rid of her." They really did like her. They just couldn't live with her anymore.

The next issue was how to get rid of her. We tried local ads. We tried word of mouth. We tried talking to the vet. We investigated shelters. Our nearest shelter was 3 hours round trip from us. After one particularly nasty injury-causing episode I mentioned euthanasia. The kids' eyes got very big with an ambivalent combination of horror and delight. It could be that easy? It could be that awful?

Eventually, though, with spring settling in and people thinking about new pets, our ad on a regional pet placement site got a couple of nibbles. We were very honest about the difficulties we were having, and mentioned "needs a family without children", but one family with a 6-year-old was very interested. They came for some visits (from an hour away) and Freya was her usual Abominable Self, head-butting their daughter within 5 minutes of first meeting. But they live much closer to a trainer, and have found someone willing to come to them to work with her. They liked her. I guess she's their kind of dog.

This morning they came and took her. After they'd loaded her into their truck, they suggested we bring the kids out to say goodbye to her. Noah was somewhat reluctant, because his last contact with Freya had been last evening when I'd accidentally released her from the pen not realizing he was still in the woods up by the Shark Hole. He had sprinted back to the house, against all odds outdistancing the dog (because in chasing him she mistakenly plowed into the seasonal pond in the woods and had to swim and struggle up the opposite bank). He had decided that this was a very Fitting Last Contact, and he thus felt quite happy about her departure. He didn't want to ruin the Fitting Last Contact with a happy goodbye, but when encouraged he dutifully came out to say goodbye with the rest of us. Fiona, just as we were chatting amiably with Freya's new family, blurted out "I can't wait until Freya's gone!"

We moved to the area we live in, and to our property, so that we could enjoy the wild outdoors at our doorstep. For the past two years we haven't really been able to do that. Things have changed back again today.